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UPFRONT: TACKLING MARCHING BAND WITHOUT A FOOTBALL TEAM

Josh Harris • August 2002 • August 1, 2002

Seventeen years ago, the University of Arlington, Texas, sent its football team packing. For some marching band programs, this decision would have meant certain defeat. Football game halftime shows are a college marching band’s bread and butter. But the UTA Marching Band rose to the challenge of keeping its program – without the support of the gridiron.

Today the marching band, under the direction of Phillip L. Clements, is 170 members strong and performs eight to 10 times each fall at a variety of events, from high school marching band festivals to professional football games. Clements, now in his ninth year as marching band director, attributes the band’s success, in part, to its geographic location.

“We’re located right in the middle of Dallas and Fort Worth, which is three-and-a-half million people. If we were out in a typical college town, just finding places to perform would be difficult without football games,” Clements points out. “Football is huge in Texas and, as a result, marching band is huge in Texas. If we were in a different area, where we couldn’t go 30 minutes to play for a festival and then 30 minutes in a different direction to play somewhere else, I’m not sure it would have been as easy. The area is saturated with opportunities for us to play.”

But performance opportunities alone do not guarantee that a marching band program will survive without its football team. To keep the marching band in play 17 years ago, the music department had to persuade the university of the ensemble’s academic value over the long term. Today, music majors comprise 50 to 55 percent of the marching band – about 30 percent more than the national average, according to Clements.

Clements describes the UTA marching band program as a “laboratory for our music ed students” in which the next generation of music educators is immersed in the art of teaching marching band.

“The goal is that when they finish their college degree, they come out of the program really understanding the process of how to teach marching band. They could take that to a high school band and slow it down a little bit and it would work just as well,” he explains.

Football-free Format

When the football team was eliminated due to economic factors, the music department – intent on keeping the marching band intact – braced itself for a challenge. A meeting of the minds between the chairman of the music department and the university president and a shift in budgeting enabled the band to keep marching.

“I’ve heard through other people that there may be one or two other bands in the country that have this situation, but I’ve never been able to confirm that,” Clements relates. “We’ve been doing it 17 years now, and I know that nobody else has been able to do that.”
Every few years, rumblings about reinstating the football program surface in the school newspaper. But for now, the marching band stands alone.

“I have never heard any serious discussion about it. I talk with the athletic director periodically. I think if they did it, they’d really want to do it the right way,” Clements says. “As of this morning, the plans are not to do that. But if that did change, we would make accommodations,” he adds.

In the event that a team returns to the field, Clements foresees a restructuring of goals for the marching band – including weekly field shows of shorter duration. Otherwise, he expects the transition would be smooth and that the success of the band program would continue.

“We’d hope the quality wouldn’t change. We’re really proud of the quality of the group,” he says. “We’ve already got a marching band going and we’d just plug into a different schedule. It would just change our focus. We’d be playing for a different kind of audience and we would program differently.”

For now, the UTA Marching Band has little difficulty attracting students to its football-free format.

“A lot of students actually enjoy the fact that they can just concentrate on marching band without the ancillary things that go along with it – because they may be football fans and they may not be. It just depends on the student. Some are drawn to the fact that we don’t have a team, and some could go either way.”

Throughout the state of Texas – where the ensemble performs most often – the marching band is well known, as is the fact that it’s not affiliated with a football team. But incoming students from other states are often surprised to find a marching band at a school with no football team.

“They’re amazed that this happened,” Clements says. “When there’s a football team, everybody assumes there’s a marching band. But when there’s no football team, they would never assume that there’s a marching band.”
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‘Ambassadors of the University’

No longer tooting their horns for the benefit of the football players and fans, the UTA Marching Band has found its own place on campus as “The Ambassadors of the University.” Clements points out that the marching band plays for audiences averaging 5,000 to 10,000 spectators at most outings, whereas marching bands at small schools with football teams may not even come close.

The absence of the college football team has cleared the path for the marching band to perform wherever and whenever it chooses. While other college marching bands are held to a weekly football game performance and, in many cases, learning a new field show each week, the Arlington Ambassadors perform twice a week during the fall at various venues, performing the same show for an array of audiences.

“We get to focus on the art of marching band and go out and put the best product on the field that we can from an entertainment point of view,” Clements notes.

For instance, in 1997, the band had the unique opportunity to perform an original show designed in the genre of 1940s detective films.

“We were able to explore some different things musically that other college bands really wouldn’t be able to do as much.”

Among the performance highlights this year will be exhibitions at Bands of America regional festivals and a stand-still program at a Texas Rangers’ baseball game. The marching band’s field show is about 13 minutes long, consisting of about 70 to 80 sets, according to Clements.

“It really challenges the students that way,” he says. “I really would prefer to do more shows, but once we start performing, there’s just no time to switch. We’re playing for different audiences, so nobody’s seeing it twice.”

Last year, the marching band traveled to Indianapolis to perform at the Bands of America Grand Nationals, an event that attracts the top high school marching bands in the country and an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 spectators. For Clements and his students, that performance was particularly rewarding because of the nature of the audience.

“It was great because we had an audience of very educated connoisseurs, so to speak,” he reflects. “They were all there for marching band and they really appreciated the details of what we do.”

In the future, Clements hopes to continue the marching band’s 17-year tradition of performing without a football team. Since his arrival, he has added to that tradition with personal details. For instance, the band now sings the alma mater in four-part harmony after each performance – a custom revived from the days of football, when the band would finish its pre-game show with the song.

“Every year, that’s one of the things I will remember, the band singing that for the last time at the last performance of the year.”

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